Essena O’Neill was riding high on a wave of likes, comments and shares, living a life many Millennials would consider a dream.
Posting candid photos of her dolled up designer outfits, perfect bikini shots and the optimal selfie, the 18-year-old Australian model and social media celebrity accumulated half a million followers on Instagram, and over 200,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel.
But beneath the contrived postures and staged “action” shots is a young woman struggling to find an identity in a reality masked by a digital character.
She is adored by her fans, but they love her for her manufactured poses and not her authentic personality.
“I was addicted to what others thought of me, simply because it was so readily available,” she wrote. “I was severely addicted. I believed how many likes and followers I had correlated to how many people liked me.
I didn’t even see it happening, but social media had become my sole identity. I didn’t even know what I was without it.”
She trended on the very platform she grew to resent when she posted an emotional YouTube video, announcing her retirement from social media.
Her disdain for its values finally erupted, after months of seeking social approval.
In her YouTube video, O’Neill spoke about how unhappy her social media obsession had made her.
“I spent hours watching perfect girls online, wishing I was them. Then when I was ‘one of them,’ I still wasn’t happy, content or at peace with myself.”
"I fell in love with this idea that I could be of value to other people,” she adds. “Let’s call this my snowballing addiction to be liked by others.”
She deleted over 2,000 photos off her Instagram account, renamed her account “Social Media Is Not Real Life,” and edited the captions to describe the bleak truth that is hidden under a strategically selected filter, a perfectly timed smile and a rehearsed pose that accents the most desirable aesthetic features.
Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated, self-absorbed judgment. I was consumed by it.
While O’Neill should be commended for her honesty and her symbolic gesture, scapegoating this platform doesn’t address the underlying social issues of our cultural inferiority complex and need for acceptance.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow has identified five levels of fundamental human needs in his paper, “A Theory In Human Motivation.”
This paper was published in 1943, and has provided an influential framework for human psychological and sociological studies.
After the most basic psychological and safety needs are met, he poses all people need to develop interpersonal relationships with friends, family and intimate partners in order to develop a sense of belongingness.
After these relationships are forged, we then require self-esteem and self-respect in order to develop a sense of value.
From there, people can start realizing their full potential and pursue their passionate ambitions, achieving a sense of self-actualization.
While this paper has been subsequently critiqued and modified, it still provides us with the fundamental understanding that we are inherently social creatures who seek approval and a purpose in life, which allows us to better ourselves.
However, social media isn’t the first medium to exploit our insatiable demand for validation.
Edward Bernays, dubbed the “father of public relations,” also used the Freudian psychology of appealing to unconscious desires to shape public opinion.
His most famous campaign was for Lucky Strikes, a cigarette product. In the 1920s, there was a taboo against women smoking in public.
Bernays discovered smoking was a symbol of male sexual prowess. Females could undermine this and make a stand for women’s rights by smoking.
Bernays convinced wealthy debutants to light their cigarettes in public during the New York Easter parade. Newspapers around the world covered this event, under the banner “Torches of Freedom.”
Women smoking in public became a symbol of protest. He appealed to women’s desires of empowerment and independence.
This campaign was a breakthrough in advertising, as companies soon realized they could sell products by appealing to people’s emotions and convincing their consumer base that goods can make a person feel special, powerful or sexy.
Social media isn’t a cause for our collective decrease in self-worth.
It has only exasperated it, as we constantly scroll through picture-perfect images and our peers’ façade of a seemingly idealized life.
In April, a study from the University of Houston linked Facebook use to depressed feelings.
But the underlying, long-standing social phenomenon of “social comparison” fuels this psychological behavior.
Facebook (and all social and digital media) just became an accelerated mechanism to showcase highlight reels from our lives. It gives us more reasons to compare ourselves to optimal snapshots by our peers.
Every day, we are inundated with images of what we should aspire to be, the type of body we should have and the types of clothes, cars and products we need to buy to elevate our social status.
We live in a consumerist-driven, capitalist society that places an emphasis on elitism. People, goods and services are pitted against one another.
Those that are the most appealing will inevitably succeed in a free market.
This type of mindset unequivocally conditions us to constantly compare ourselves to each other, whether it’s on a level of perceived happiness, attractiveness, financial or professional success or intimate relationships with a significant other.
We will never see an advertisement that reads, “You are perfect the way you are. You don’t need this product to better your life in any way.”
Unfortunately, there will always be others who are better-looking, more athletic, more intelligent or more charismatic.
But we are all our own people. We all have unique circumstances, special traits and a personalized purpose in life.
It is up to the individual to sift through society’s BS and develop substantive qualities that will help people better understand their place in this world.
This alone can spur personal growth and self-actualization.
To borrow a quote from Chance the Rapper, “Everybody’s somebody’s everything. Nobody’s nothing at all.”
We all share the same vulnerabilities that make us human: the uncertainty or fear of death, insecurities, the desire to live a life of fulfillment and happiness and the yearning for human compassion and connection.
We all share the same exposures and desires, the same world, the same life and the same inevitable conclusion.
Rather than letting these insecurities drive us apart and force us to build a digital moat around our shortcomings and anxieties, we should all break through the social media pretense of fake perfection and try to relate to one another on a more genuine level.
We should use these facets of our existence to bring each other closer. This will enable us to help each other better understand and cope with the complexities of life.
In a nation plagued by depression and anxiety, being honest with our internal conflicts and displaying a willingness to listen to one another will bring more context and perspective to our own personal struggles.
Rather than conceal our pitfalls, we should embrace our flaws.
We wish to perceive life as a set of perfect skin: smooth, vibrant and unblemished. But we are all freckles.
The obstacles in life give us scares, and emotional baggage imposes wrinkles.
There is no amount of filters that can erase our insecurities, so all we’re left to do is try to change our own lives and each other.
Every time we see our society impose its design of an ideal lifestyle, we should turn to one another, embrace our imperfections and help one another grow and be better people.
It may be idealistic, but once we learn to appreciate life is what we make of it, we will begin to understand and tolerate different perceptions and beliefs.
We will finally live in a world where people won't feel marginal.
Rather, they will feel loved.